Women, Artists, and the Male Gaze

The concept, ‘male gaze,’ as it is applied to the female body, ought to be understood as the idea that the female body stands as a gendered subject whose significance is determined by its male spectator. The concept ‘male gaze,’ implies that the value of the subject of the gaze, which is usually the female body, is determined by the male spectator. In the process of doing this, the spectator stands as the entity who “maintains a degree of control over the woman in general” which is specifically apparent as this entity determines and dictates the construction, as well as, the definition of women’s sexuality (Kuhn 11). As Vickie Shields (2006) states, the ‘point of view’ presented by the concept ‘male gaze’ implies the existence of a male spectator who determines the value of the object of the gaze (258). To present this more succinctly, Valdivia quotes Laura Mulvey, who states,In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. (258)Within this context, the female always stands as a divided subject whose self-image is always determined by both the active and passive determinants of her identity. The active determinant of her identity is evident in the male gaze whereas the passive determinant of her identity is evident in the subject repressed by the male gaze. This distinction between the female’s self-image [passive image] and the female’s mirror image [active image] leads to the creation of a divided woman who possesses an inadequate conception of her self. Patricia Mellencamp (1995) states, “This misrecognition leads to a real alienation effect, woman divided against her inadequate self, body versus mind, mother versus daughter or son, woman versus woman” (3).The problem enabled by this misrecognition of the female identity is evident if one considers that the male gaze functions on the assumption that an individual’s identity is determined by their biological body. This assumption however is mistaken. As Michel Foucault (1998) argues, the biology of the body merely provides the materials for sexuality, what determines the manner how this sexuality ought to be understood is the discourse that defines the sexuality that is to be attached to this body (33).In line with this, various female artists have sought to redefine the female body by directly overthrowing the assumptions that enabled the conditions for the male gaze to determine the value of the female body. This is evident if one considers the following works: (1) Barbara Kruger’s Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face, (2) Sofonisba Anguissola’s Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, (3) Rosalba Carriera’s Self-Portrait with Her Sister, (4) Judith Leyster’s Self Portrait, and (5) Katherine Doyle’s Self-Portrait. These artworks present the self-images of women artists whose representation of their image aims to subvert, if not openly defy, the male gaze hence in the process enabling the reconstruction and redefinition of the female body.Before proceeding with the discussion of the aforementioned works, it is important to note the main argument as well as the main assumptions of this exhibit. It is important to note that the main argument reflects the purpose of this exhibit, which is to enable the development of women’s consciousness regarding the portrayal of her body throughout history and hence in the process enable women’s development of the realization to subvert the continuous use of the male gaze in the representation and definition of the female body in society. The public relevance of this exhibit is thereby apparent as it aims for the continuous development of women’s consciousness as well as women’s emancipation from the objectification of the female body enabled by the male gaze.The exhibit is organized around the theme ‘Women, Artists, and the Male Gaze.’ To be more specific, this theme ought to be understood within the context of the following argument: The reconstruction and redefinition of the female body that subverts the male gaze can be traced to the beginning of the 15th century which shows that the development of women’s awareness, as well as the development of women’s redefinition and reconstruction of the meanings attached to the female body, has continually developed and evolved throughout history, as can be seen in the various artworks of women artists from the 15th century to the early part of the 20th century. The assumptions of the aforementioned argument are as follows: (1) Artworks mirror social reality as they represent or recreate the artist’s conception of the current epistemological framework in society; (2) Self-portraits and the representation of the member’s of one’s [or the members of another] sex represents artists’ understanding of their ‘self’ [as it is related to the members of their sex or the members of the other sex]; (3) The typical representation of the female, in paintings, is determined by the male gaze; (4) The male gaze represents the female subject as a passive subject controlled by the artist; and (5) Artworks that represent the female as an active subject, as opposed to a passive subject, may be seen as artworks that defies the male gaze (Worth 24-25).In line with this, the following presentation of the works mentioned in the initial part of the paper will be arranged in the following manner: (1) Barbara Kruger’s Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face, (2) Sofonisba Anguissola’s Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, (3) Rosalba Carriera’s Self-Portrait with Her Sister, (4) Judith Leyster’s Self Portrait, and (5) Katherine Doyle’s Self-Portrait. Kruger’s work stands to introduce how the male gaze has affected the portrayal of the female figure in artworks. Sofonisba Anguissola’s Bernardino Campo Painting Sofonisba Anguissola aims to present an example of how the male gaze has been used by male artists in their portrayal of the female figure in paintings. Rosalba Carriera’s Self-Portrait with Her Sister, on the other hand, aims to show how the female figure herself perceives the members of her sex within the context of the male gaze. In addition to this, Judith Leyster’s Self Portrait, aims to present how the female artist has enabled the subversion of the male gaze through the subversion of the roles between the active and passive subject in paintings. Finally, Katherine Doyle’s Self-Portrait, aims to present how the male gaze has been completely overturned, in some artworks, through Doyle’s representation of both an active and passive female subject in her painting. In line with this, what follows is an analysis of the aforementioned works.Barbara Kruger (1981-1983), in her photo collage more frequently known as “Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face,” combines the aforementioned words with the side of the absorbed face of Chardin’s boy with a bubble. The face of Chardin’s boy is shown in profile and hence the boy stands oblivious to the gaze of the spectator as well as the beams of light emanating from the upper part of the collage. The combination of these images and the characteristics surrounding these images thereby creates an ironic image since the serenity of the Chardin boy’s face may be understood as forced serenity given the texts on the side of the boy’s face. This may be understood as the spectator’s use of the male gaze in the creation of stolid and passive subject, beautiful yet emotionless at the same time due to its inability to show its real identity.The manner through which the male gaze leads to the creation of a stolid and passive subject is specifically apparent in Sofonisba Anguissola’s Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola.  The painting shows Anguissola’s teacher Bernardo Campi painting Anguissola’s image. It is interesting to note the difference of Anguissola’s representation of her teacher as opposed to her teacher’s representation of Anguissola. Consider for example that Campi portrays Anguissola as a passive and blank subject. As opposed to this, Anguissola represents her teacher with more emotion and with greater expressiveness. The combination of both images thereby presents one with the larger image of the male created image of Anguissola, passive and emotionless, looming over the female created image of Campi, active and filled with expression. Within this context, Anguissola’s painting may be understood in two ways: (1) It may be understood as her presentation of how the female artist possess greater talent than the male artist and (2) It may be understood as her presentation of how even if the female artist possesses greater talent that the male artist, it is still the male artist’s perspective [the male gaze] which is predominates artworks.The manner through which the male perspective predominates artworks is in itself evident in the artworks produced by female artists. An example of this can be seen in Rosalba Carriera’s Self-Portrait with Her Sister. Within the painting, Carriera portrays herself holding a portrait of her sister which she painted herself. The painting shows that Carriera as capable of portraying the minute details of the female subject which is evident in her emphasis on the complex embroidery of her sister’s dress in the laters own portrait. Carriera’s painting may be understood as her emphasis on the necessary details that artists ought to portray on their paintings. Despite Carriera’s talent, it is interesting to note how her depiction of herself, as well as that of her sister, is in accordance with the male gaze since she presents herself and her sister as stolid objects. One may note however that the male gaze is also subverted within the painting as Carriera asserts her painting skills as she repaints the minute details of her sister’s profile in her reproduction of the laters portrait in her aforementioned portrait of herself.The same subversion of the male gaze is evident in Judith Leyster’s Self Portrait. In Leyster’s Self Portrait, Leyster depicts herself to be seated before another painting [which is her painting of The Regents f the Old Men’s Alms House], with her palette and brushes in her hand, as she turns to the spectator as if to engage the spectator into conversation. It is interesting to note how Leyster changes her initial painting by substituting the fiddler in The Regents f the Old Men’s Alms House for a girl. This representation of herself as well as the change of the image in the painting depicted within her portrait may be understood in two ways: (1) It may be understood as Leyster’s proof of her skill as the painting depicted in her portrait stands as her masterpiece and (2) It may be understood as Leyster’s affirmation of her identity as a woman painter. Leyster’s painting, in this sense, subverts the male gaze as Leyster affirms her capability as a woman painter while at the same time affirming her confidence in her gender and sexuality as a woman artist.The same affirmation of one’s identity as a woman and a woman artist is more apparent in Katherine Doyle’s untitled self-portrait. In Kate Doyle’s self portrait one perceives the image of a female who bares herself to the spectator as she strips her undergarments to reveal her sex. In the same manner that Judith Leyster presents herself with her works, within her self-portrait, Kate Doyle depicts herself standing in front of her other works as if presenting the spectator with full and extreme confidence the connection of her works to her sexuality. Such a depiction of the female body in Kate Doyle’s self portrait may be understood as her means of asserting that her vision is determined by her sexuality and her vision cannot be silenced by the male gaze as she confidently presents herself as having direct contact with the spectator of the paintings.As can be seen in the following works, such works presents the manner through which the female artist has used art in order to redefine and reconstruct the conception of the female body and the conception of what this body is capable of. Such works affirm the female’s creativity as well as her ability to assert her identity apart from the male gaze.